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muslim blogger hoda katebi on the connection between your closet and the revolution

The ethical, anti-capitalist blogger behind JooJoo Azad discusses whitewashed representations, the radical work of Muslim creatives, and her hopes for the representation of Middle Eastern women.

Gabriela Herstik

Gabriela Herstik

Hoda Katebi is the 22-year-old founder of ethical and anti-capitalist fashion blog JooJoo Azad, and she's here to shake things up. By urging brands and media to be transparent in their dealings, JooJoo Azad is rewriting what it means to be a fashion blog. The site acts as a buffer between Katebi's interest in style and her need to challenge the media's representation of hijab-wearing women in the United States. As an Iranian-American Muslim woman living in Chicago, Katebi's voice is inherently political — because navigating the world is inherently political for her. And living in a country where the president is trying to ban citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, having a fearless voice like Katebi's is vital, not only to spark conversations, but also to provoke change.

Katebi decided to start JooJoo Azad in 2013 after hearing the news that an attack on a pregnant Muslim woman in France had led her to miscarry. JooJoo Azad means "free bird" in Farsi, an appropriate emblem for Katebi, who goes against nearly every rule in the fashion industry. "JooJoo Azad is where I can yell on the internet through words and visuals. Even if the caption of a photo is just describing the ethical brands I worked with for the shoot, the images scream, 'I am here. I am unapologetically wearing a hijab. And you're going to have to deal with it,'" explains Katebi. By examining the policies and opinions of the fashion industry with an intersectional feminist and ethical perspective, Katebi is able to redefine expectations.

"JooJoo Azad acts as a site of unapologetic identity reclamation aimed at challenging Orientalist mainstream media representation of Middle-Eastern, Hijab-wearing, Muslim women," she says on her blog. "I'm not going to let the media render me what I am not. I am not going to let others silence or hide my voice. I am here, I am making noise, and I am taking up space." Whether she's writing a piece about the politics of fashion or updating the blog's list of brands to boycott, Katebi never treats fashion like a spectator sport. By documenting her existence through her blog, she is able take back the lens on how Muslim-American women are seen.

Have you always been into fashion?
Unlike most fashion bloggers, I don't have the childhood stories of "always being passionate about clothes" and playing dress-up. I was more into bugs, which, now, is an interest I can't understand. Actually, I didn't really care much for fashion or clothing until around the time I started college. Before that, my mother still bought my clothes. I would stuff the bottom of my faded flared jeans into my boots, and my classic look was long-sleeves under t-shirts. Much like making friends, fashion was not my forte growing up.

Actually, losing friends came at the same time I made a major fashion decision: wearing the hijab at my largely homogeneously white, conservative, and sheltered middle school. My experiences growing up as a young hijab-wearing Muslim woman — and all of the physical, emotional, and verbal assault that came with it — shaped my understanding of fashion and clothing. I started becoming intrigued with fashion as I began to realize its deep political and communicative properties. How you dress and choose to frame your body changes the way you feel, how you act, and how others react to you. Because after all, if I was wearing my scarf around my neck instead of on my head, I probably wouldn't have been physically assaulted and called a terrorist at age 11.

JooJoo Azad is an "anti-capitalist fashion blog." What does this mean to you? And what have been the difficulties with promoting ethical fashion?
The fashion industry is one of the most destructive industries in the world. How can I be complicit in this and not call out the bullshit? How is it that most garment workers are still being exploited? When a $5 shirt can still bring in profit, does it not raise eyebrows as to how little the person who actually made the shirt was paid? Being an anti-capitalist fashion blogger is not only a moral and political stance, it's a responsibility.

Running an anti-capitalist fashion blog for me means focusing less on the purchasing aspect of fashion, selectively working with ethical fashion brands, and minimizing "outfit" content, which encourages people to consume. It's also doing research and putting together a boycott list and brand portfolios, and encouraging my readers to think differently about their relationships to their clothing — as an art form rather than a simple commodity — with a focus on a minimal wardrobe.

What has it been like for you to share your own identity with the world in such an honest and vulnerable way?
We're complex human beings with important, deep histories, varying narratives and perspectives, and a range of personalities. It's not easy to unpack everything in an article, especially when my identity is constantly being flattened and homogenized by the media, Western scholarship, and the trillion-dollar industry that profits from producing and distributing Islamophobia — think surveillance technology firms, military weaponry, and drones, etc. Especially when people try to challenge your personal experiences without knowing anything about you.

Like most Muslim women of color who are unapologetic in their content and words, and whose writing is aimed at making people uncomfortable, I've been put on blacklists, targeted and harassed, and received death threats and threats of violence — and everyone feels entitled to my response. But that's not necessarily new. I don't need to have an online personality in order to be targeted by bigots in this country. Thankfully, the majority of the responses to my work have been overwhelmingly positive, and I am always inspired to continue to write. I so deeply appreciate all of my readers and their constant stream of love and messages of support. It really is what keeps me going. That and saffron ice cream.

You wrote an incredible piece on fashion being inherently political. How has this idea impacted your personal relationship with fashion?
My clothes were actually political before I even realized they were: whether I like it or not, choosing to wear the hijab in the U.S. has become a political statement. It was only after I was a bit older and had worn the hijab for a few years that I really started realizing how powerful fashion is. Of course, as I also mentioned in that piece, I can understand why fashion seems vacuous, shallow, and apolitical — or, even, antithetical to politics. Fashion has historically been a women-dominated industry, and under a patriarchal system, devalued, like most women's work. But fashion is an art. It has the power to communicate, challenge, resist, and define. The more I engaged with the politics of fashion, the more I was able to see my clothes as an art form. I purchased less and became more aware of where and from who I was purchasing clothes. This feeds directly into my work in the ethical fashion industry.

What's your advice for women looking to make more ethical fashion choices?
Stop buying clothes. Treat your wardrobe like you would a gallery. Pick what speaks to you — and was ethically made — and only that. No "why not?" thoughts at the sale section. I would rather invest the same amount of money into ethically produced, higher quality pieces, than throwing money at clothes that were the product of exploitation and not made to last.

What are your hopes for the representation of Middle Eastern women in the future? How do you want to help change this narrative?
I hope that Middle Eastern Muslim women and non-binary people's self-representations are the ones that are uplifted, celebrated, and shared. Not whitewashed, sanitized, made-by-white-men images of us. We will never get free if our image of freedom is drawn by those who profit from our oppression. I hope my work can continue to build upon the existing mass of radical, unapologetic art, writing, and media made by Muslim creatives. There are so many talented artists who I love — Leila Abdelrazaq, Hushidar Mortezaie, Moshtari, Tasnim Baghdadi, and Sundus Hadi, to name a few. I hope my work, like theirs, is able to celebrate my people. I want my work to reclaim the "angry" trope. I am angry. With all the bullshit happening right now, how could I not be? My anger is righteous. And I want my work to show that.

What does the future of Joojoo Azad look like?
While I would love to just continue posting simple fashion editorials and collaborating with ethical brands, I don't have that privilege anymore. I live in a fascist state now. So, my work must be centered around resisting it, supporting others resisting it, and continuing to build with them. Of course, my work never lacked political value, as that was the premise of why I started JooJoo Azad, but it's time to buckle in. I've already expanded my internship program to include a team of volunteers. We're launching an ethical clothing line, working on collaborations with other POC creatives, and writing and producing more work that is directly in response to our current political climate. All art is political. And mine is for the movement. 

joojooazad.com

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Text Gabriela Herstik